by Adam von Dioszeghy
Reunion. The word conjures up school gatherings 10, 20, 50 years after graduation. Old schoolmates getting together to talk about old times….the times of youth; the girl everybody pined for, who eventually ended up marrying a loser; the sporting event that was almost won, but for the demonic referee’s outrageous ruling. After all that’s been discussed, the topic turns to present ailments: this week THIS hurts, last week THAT hurt. After the reunion weekend is over, everybody goes home thinking, “Gee, I don’t look near as bad as some of them do..” [self-foolery is still the best medicine]. And five years later, this charade is repeated all over again…at least by those still around.
Not all reunions are school reunions. Some are for sport clubs or teams, remembering and discussing the great victories and mourning those close losses…and now, making notes of the big bellies some other mates have acquired. There are all sorts of other reunions, not very different.
And – lest we forget – there are military reunions: members of companies, battalions, units, ships, squadrons, whatever. These can have extra significance if war times were shared by the participants; the reunions of those who managed to dodge death, who managed to survive through skill, luck and the
grace of God. Often, the ties in these groups are stronger than those in other groups. This story is about one of these reunions, which is yet to come, but is already casting a long shadow.
The participants of this reunion – just two – have to look back over 50 years to the time when fate brought them together: they fought in the Vietnam War in the 1960s. They were young titans then, and now they are in their 70s. But let us approach the subject gingerly and with due care.
Fate brought these two people together on a United States Navy warship, a destroyer, the USS Porterfield (DD682). One of them was an enlisted man – a fire control technician (FT) – while the other was an officer, a Lieutenant junior grade. The FT was 21 years old, the officer was 27. Lets’ give them names: the FT was called Don Johnson, the Ltjg. was called Adam von Dioszeghy…to all those on board the ship he was known as “Mr. vonD”. They served together from 1965 through 1966. Then their ways parted and neither heard from the other for decades.
I – the erstwhile “Mr. vonD” – after leaving the Porterfiled and the Vietnam War, went to Stanford Law School, graduated, passed the bar exam, taught law, dabbled in prosecuting, and ended up practicing law in the San Francisco Bay Area for 40 years. Then, in 2000, my wife, Aliz, and I moved to Hungary to begin a new life there. Though I spent a lot of time thinking and talking about my ship, the Navy and the War, I basically left all that behind.
With the exception of a couple of my fellow officers – with whom I kept in touch very occasionally – the Porterfield and all it meant, faded from my memory. That all changed when Aliz received an e-mail, in January, 2016, as follows:
“Hello Mrs. von Dioszeghy, I hope you get this message, and I hope I have the right people to send this to. I was in the Navy back in 1965-66, on board the USS Porterfield (DD682) and at one of my General Quarters stations in a place called IC-Plot was this crazy guy, LTJG Adam von Dioszeghy, who was the officer in charge in that space and the guy that actually pulled the gun triggers. I was an FT Seaman at the time and made FT3rd class on the Porterfiled. If he is the guy, it would be great to say hello once more after all these years.
The memories came rushing back: the Navy, the Porterfield, the Vietnam War, IC-Plot….
….the sharp lines of the graceful grey lady – the Porterfiled – come crystallyzing out of the misty fog of fifty-odd-years memory in my mind.
Commands and acknowledgements are flying back and forth on the bridge:
“Now secure the Special Sea and Anchor Detail…set regular watch section four ………………… Mr. vonD has the Deck and the Conn…
“Aye, aye, I have the Deck and the Conn…All engines ahead standard, indicate 15 knots…Aye, aye Sir, all engines are ahead standard, indicating 15 knots…Very well…
“Right full rudder, come right to 052 degrees….Aye, aye Sir, the rudder is right full, coming right to 052 degrees….Very well.”
…. It is now 1966, and the Porterfield is “on station”, engaged with the enemy. Presently, we are supporting US Marine ground troops with our naval guns. We are lying close to shore and firing our guns inland to help the Marines who have no artillery support close enough to fight off the onrushing VC (Viet Cong) and RNV (Regular North-Vietnamese Army). We are in modified General Quarters condition, which means that personnel have to stand “6 hours on, 6 hours off” watches in their wartime positions. My position is officer-in- charge in the IC-Plot.
What is IC-Plot? It is a space amidships, full of equipment and communication devices. There are 8-10 people at this station, all working together, with one officer in charge. The main piece of equipment is the “computer”. Those of you in Generations X or Y (that is, born after 1965), will have a gross misconception when you read the word, “computer”. The Porterfield was built in 1943 (essentially to fight in WWII), and its equipment is of that vintage. Thus, when we speak of computers on it, we mean something entirely different than an IBM piece or something more modern.
This computer is a huge, heavy item, taking up most of IC-Plot, sitting in the middle, with 6-7 people standing around it. It has cranks and dials; it’s main function is to regulate the position of the guns….the elevation and the direction. It also functions to keep the guns properly aimed regardless of the roll or pitch of the ship. The act of firing a gun takes place here and not in the gun mounts. The IC-Plot crew is in communication with the Marine spotter on the ground, who gives direction as to where to put the next high explosive shell. The communication goes something like this:
Marine spotter (MS): “Porterfield, add a 100” (meaning the shell should go 100 yards further), or MS: “Porterfiled, right 50” (meaning the shell should go 50 yards to the right).
Then, the enlisted man dials in the change, and the guns respond accordingly….
One hopes! This goes on for 6 hours until the watch is changed and another crew takes over. Seems simple, doesn’t it, you say as you suppress a yawn.
Before we decide whether or not to agree with that supposition, a few things need to be considered. The first is that the ship is in full wartime mode, meaning that all watertight doors are “dogged down” (meaning, locked). In practicality this means no outside air. Secondly, since it’s summer time in Vietnam, the temperature outside is about 100 degrees F (41C) in the shade, and in the enclosed space of IC-Plot it is 122F (50C). Thirdly, the ship is firing 5″38cal shells (which can reach 9 miles), and which land sometimes within 30-50 yards of our own troops. Any mistake in the aiming will cost several lives through what is euphemistically called “friendly fire”. To a loved one it makes precious little difference whether a husband/father/son was killed by the enemy or your own kind. Any mistake can be deadly.
To sum up, standing in 122F heat, in a closed space for 6 hours and firing high explosive shells into close proximity of your comrades requires total concentration, and it is very taxing, if not totally exhausting. Therefore, perhaps, it’s not quite like a walk in the park on a Sunday afternoon.
So here we were, Don Johnson, myself and the others, day in and day out, standing our 6 hour watches together. The thirst was killing everybody in that heat. We played a little game to see how long it took for the water that one drank to turn into perspiration and spring out of the skin on the arm; it was something like 18 seconds. Finally, one of the “old salts” – a Navy Chief – on watch with us taught us a trick. He said, “Don’t drink water, it just comes right out of you! Drink hot coffee and it will cool you down”, he said. We were incredulous, but we tried it. And, sure enough, he was right: the hot coffee DID cool us down. I have practiced this piece of knowledge on hot days ever since,
and it has worked.
Our unit in IC-Plot melded together, and we functioned as a well-oiled machine. We destroyed a lot of enemy troops and never had a mishap of firing onto our own Marines. God was looking out for us. And – eventually – the war ended for each of us, and civilian life beckoned. Decades passed, until the email I wrote about above.
Don Johnson and I corresponded for the next year and a half with some frequency. Don wrote me that there are reunions for the Porterfield from time to time. The last one was in the Fall of 2016, in San Diego. He attended it, and met up with some old shipmates, including one Jack Hix, who was also a member of the IC-Plot crew. Sadly, I was unable to attend the reunion, but was fully briefed on it by Don, including pictures and even a video.
The Porterfield is, alas!, no more. It lies at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, having been used as a target for torpedo practice by submarines. As a former anti-submarine officer, it pains me to think about the role reversal. But, perhaps, it is more fitting for it to have been sunk, doing its “duty”, than to have been cut up and sold for scrap-metal or transferred to some foreign
But, back to the subject of the reunion. Some months ago, Don and his wife, Diana, decided that, included in their next European trip, would be a visit to Hungary, and the renewal of the old friendship. Or, perhaps, “old friendship” is the wrong phrase: officers and enlisted men were not allowed to fraternize” … so, our relationship on the Porterfield was “comradeship”. Plans were made and put into place: the Johnsons would arrive into Budapest by plane on May 25, and would spend about a week with us, in Budapest and at our country house.
Today, I received an email that they left their home in New Haven, Connecticut for the first leg of their trip, which would take them to
Scandinavia where Don’s roots are. Excitement is high on both sides. The reunion is coming!
It was all against Navy regulations. First, both sailors saluted simultaneously, instead of the enlisted man saluting the officer first. Secondly, neither had covers on their heads, a gross violation. In their defense, they were very excited (not having seen each other for over 50 years), but most importantly, they were no longer the property of the US Navy … they was free!
They was right-proper civilians. And, of course, the hug that followed would have surely resulted in a court-martial: fraternizing between an officer and an enlisted man!?! No matter, the reunion had begun!!
When an event is upcoming, and you really have no idea how it will go, it always gives a challenge to your mind. You can have great expectations – based on nothing – or you can worry that it will be a disaster. In our case, here were the knowns: Don and I have not seen each other for over 50 years; neither Aliz nor I have ever met Diana; Don and Diana have never met Aliz. What can you truly expect? I – being a closet optimist – thought it would go “OK”. To eliminate any further suspense, let me tell you that the get-together was FABULOUS. Beyond all expectations. Now, let’s get into the meat- and- potatoes of it.
The Johnsons arrived by plane, late in the evening, and checked into their hotel. We picked them up at ten-ish the next morning. We traveled to our country house by our car, had a fantastic lunch there, drank everything that was alcoholic, and started to get to know one another. We were blessed with fabulous weather throughout the visit. The skies were clear and blue, the winds were only wafting about, and the temperature was around 75F (25C). At the country house, I cooked my signature Hungarian gulyas – in a kettle over an open fire – and we talked about the last 50 years. The wives got along famously…which is no mean thing, considering that the only thing initially in common between them was the fact that they were both married to “Navy men”. It was fascinating to learn that Don and Diana had been married for over 53 years (!); in fact, they were married before Don joined the crew of the Porterfiled in 1965.
After a couple of days, we went back to Budapest to show the Johnsons “our” city. We covered a lot of ground in the next four days. Aliz and I showed them everything that would fit into this tight schedule: items of historical interest, places of particular beauty, and things uniquely “Hungarian”. We also ate and drank excellent Hungarian meals and drinks, especially good Hungarian wines. One day, Aliz took the Johnsons to the famous Gellert Baths, an experience worth having by any standard. But the integral part of our daily
routine was the laughter, the stories, the jokes and the camaraderie which – by then – came completely naturally to us all. It was as if we had not only known each other for decades, but saw each other with some frequency over that time.
The last night we had dinner at a lovely place built atop a man-made lake in the City Park. To set the tone, the restaurant was called “Robinson” (after Robinson Crusoe, the shipwrecked sailor). We watched the ducks on the lake, enjoyed the refreshing sight of the fountains shooting water up into the air, and saw the sun set on our final day. As we took our guests back to their hotel to say our farewells, Diana expressed all our feelings when she said – with tears in her eyes – “This is the hard part.”
She was right. The four strangers of a week earlier had molded into a unit, a unit one could sincerely call, “FRIENDS”. This was no longer just a reunion of two long-separated shipmates, but a gathering of four people who
very much grew to be intimate in many things: values, beliefs, interests. We all regretted that we lived so far from one another. And the two aged warriors (no longer aging but aged), while still finding common ground of their long – passed experiences on the old Porterfield, found that they have both learned
much about life through hardship, understanding, perseverance, wonderful mates, love and God. How can you do all that in one week? And still have time for fun? A tall order, you say? Just ask the Johnsons and the von Dioszeghys.